Tuesday 13 February 2018

Carmen 1808 - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Georges Bizet
Arranged by Teddy Clements
Book and lyrics by Phil Willmott
Adapted from the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
Based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée

The Company
There’s a noble intent behind Phil Willmott’s Carmen 1808 that seeks to meld Bizet’s opera into a narrative inspired by Goya’s painting of Napoleon’s troops brutally firing on defenceless Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War of the early 19th century. 

Tinkering with greatness does, however, demand greatness from the tinkerer - and there is little that is great about this show. Bizet wrote his tunes for classical operatic voices and, aside from the sonorous charms of Alexander Barria (whose Royal Academy of Music training stands out a mile) as Goya sketching out the unfolding narrative, most of the other voices are lost in the Union’s un-mic’d melee. Rachel Lea-Gray in the title role puts in a fine shift but she’s found wanting in the Habanera.

In the right hands (and voices) opera’s classics can work spectacularly on the fringe but all too often in this show one is left with the distinct feeling that Willmott has done to Bizet’s melodies what Napoleon’s riflemen did to the helpless Spanish. There are occasional moments of redemption though as alongside Lea-Gray, Ellie Ann Lowe and Charlotte Haines put in solo turns that evidence their vocal skills.

Elsewhere there’s acting that at times is clichéd beyond belief - and quite why the French soldiers speak with stereotyped accents that are straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo defies comprehension. Just be grateful that Willmott didn't have his Spaniards speak like Manuel, the Fawlty Towers waiter. 

This all plays out on an imaginative set from Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, while Teddy Clements puts in sterling work on the keyboard to accompany the cast. And for those folk seeking a snatch of Bizet’s “hit tunes” (Willmott’s words) there’s a pre-recorded backing track (that’s disgracefully un-credited in the programme) to support the cast in choreographer Adam Haigh's toe-tapping flamenco-esque finale . Now That’s What I Call Carmen.

Runs until 10th March
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

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